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Rebuilding a Dream

As two institutions learn firsthand, revamping telecommunications infrastructure isn’t as difficult as it may seem.

TelecomA LONG TIME AGO, revamping a school’s telecommunications infrastructure was up there with scaling Mount Everest as one of the toughest challenges around. First up was the task of finding a new PBX. Then came the chore of rewiring the campus. Before long, project costs skyrocketed. Even well-funded IT departments struggled to get the job done.

Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) changed everything. Suddenly, with the installation of a simple server and some new phones, IT administrators were able to run telecom over existing data lines, saving money and manpower all the while. Two institutions— the San Mateo County Community College District (CA) and Robert Morris University (PA)—recently made this switch and have survived to talk about it.

Embracing Open Source

At Robert Morris University, IT officials turned to open source software to handle telecommunications, and recently replaced a 10-year-old Nortel PBX with an open source solution that runs VoIP. The switch became critical toward the end of 2005, when the PBX had reached its capacity, and the school was planning to erect some new dormitories on campus. Randy Johnson, director of technical services at RMU, says that rather than invest in expanding the PBX, he wanted to find a new solution that could handle telecommunications better and faster than before.

That new solution came in the form of Asterisk, a complete PBX in software. It has support for three-way calling, caller ID services, and a host of other features. Johnson says the best part of the solution is cost savings— since RMU adopted the technology on a limited basis in January of 2006, the school has seen roughly $25,000 in hard- and soft-dollar savings (maintenance and labor).

“In terms of financing, a new PBX and at least 300 new copper wires cost a lot more than one piece of open source software that’s virtually free,” he says, noting that the school bought its version of Asterisk from Digium, one of the project sponsors, and now runs the software on a server from Hewlett-Packard. “For us, rebuilding our telecommunications on an open source model just made sense.”

While Asterisk gets the basic job done, it is facilitating a number of innovations behind the scenes, too. In June 2006, for instance, when RMU consolidated 11 different exchanges into two, Asterisk helped callers by playing recordings that informed them about the new numbers; the system then transferred their calls. Owners of the old numbers also received e-mails from the phone system notifying them of calls to them that were misdialed.

And last fall, Johnson used the Asterisk system to equip certain university officials with software-based VoIP phones that allow users’ new extensions to follow them wherever they go. So long as these users are connected to the internet, they can plug in USB headsets and use their laptop computers just like telephones. Complete with caller ID, the new “soft” phones are “the work-from-home dream,” says Johnson, and could ultimately become available to students, too.

“Never missing calls wherever you are is a luxury I think every user would love to have,” says Johnson. “Name another PBX system that can do that.”

Still, the new system has not been without its challenges. Johnson says the toughest challenge so far has been helping users familiarize themselves with the new phones. The school has offered a number of training classes, and so far, he notes, users are gradually learning to use the new system.

Traditional VoIP

Open source isn’t always the right solution for everyone, and officials at the San Mateo County Community College District simply wanted something better than the PBX they had been using for years. Their PBX system, much like the one at RMU, was being used to capacity; expanding it would have required a significant investment in new wiring. Instead, in the spring of 2003, the school embarked on a four-phase migration to commercial VoIP. Today, the three-school system is running almost exclusively on traditional, proprietary VoIP from Siemens.

VoIP has saved the San Mateo County Community College District over a half-million dollars on circuits, cabling, system maintenance, and productivity enhancements.

Before Siemens came in, SMCCCD hired Teecom, a Bay Area solution provider, to perform a network assessment across the institution’s various campuses. According to Frank Vaskelis, director of IT for the district, this company used a variety of tools to determine what level of service quality (QoS) the new system would be able to deliver over time. Because the system would be so spread out, Teecom recommended taking a phased approach to sharpen QoS gradually in each locale.

“We figured that we couldn’t deploy VoIP everywhere, but our objective was to get it to as many of our 85 buildings as possible,” says Vaskelis. “This was not something that was going to happen overnight.”

Siemens completed the administrative phase of the project by early 2005. One month later, the district deployed VoIP at the first of its schools—Cañada College in Redwood City. Skyline College in San Bruno came online three weeks later. Finally, in December 2005, the system deployed VoIP at the College of San Mateo, by far the largest of the three district campuses. The total price tag for the new telephony equipment for all three schools: $1.75 million.

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The implementation didn’t go off without hiccups, however. In particular, Vaskelis says he was caught off-guard by the amount of power VoIP servers need—a problem he solved by purchasing equipment that receives its power over the Ethernet (PoE).

Overall, however, the implementation was far more successful than even Vaskelis imagined. Before work began, he says, he was expecting roughly 60 percent of all system phones to operate on VoIP. By January 2006, however, nearly 98 percent of the phones in the district network were PBX-free. While Vaskelis estimates the system has saved about $525,000 to date on circuits, cabling, system maintenance, and productivity enhancements, the biggest benefit has been a new unified messaging system. “One of the college presidents told me she was at a conference where there was no internet, but then she realized she could listen to her e-mail messages over the phone,” he says. “These are the kinds of things our users never dreamed about with our PBX. Now they’re possible.”

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